Job searches can be arduous. In many ways it’s a full-time job all by itself. You‘re constantly refining your resume, personalizing cover letters and updating your portfolio. You reach out to recruiters. You spend days combing through hundreds of job postings and alerts. Then, finally, you find something you want. You learn all you can about this company. You study their competitors. You assemble application materials, employment histories and references for what seems like the hundredth time. Finally, you apply and then move on to the next opportunity.
When you do hear back from a hiring manager it’s a good feeling. You’ve done something right. But that’s often just the beginning of a long, drawn-out process that involves multiple phone calls, portfolio submissions, background checks and in-person interviews. If you make it this far, you get your hopes up.
One thing that’s often overlooked during this phase, especially for creatives, is the dreaded “sample project,” which employers use to test working skills and job readiness. Often a test project is brought up at the end of a conversation with a recruiter, after you’ve already jumped through several hoops. They’ll say something like, “Hey, I forgot to mention, this position requires a quick sample test. It should only take an hour or two. Are you game?”
Of course you are. You have no choice if you want the job.
Now, from an employer’s perspective, sample projects are incredibly helpful. They gauge creativity, strategic thinking and how well you communicate. They also test whether a candidate can work under tight deadlines. All good things, I would argue.
My objection, and to be clear I’m a freelance copywriter, is that what often is framed as a “quick test” becomes an all-day affair, where you’re asked to learn a brand voice (and a new industry), then churn out clean, impactful prose on the first draft. All for free.
But that’s not how good writing works. It’s a process. A long, grueling process. You research, write and revise. You tinker with every sentence, every syllable, trying to find the right rhythm. And then you present different options to your designer/art director, getting their feedback. Then you the client, address their feedback and write some more.
The truth is, researching a new brand voice takes time — a lot of time— especially if want to write something engaging that moves the needle.
This one experience with a sample project still gets me. I was a finalist for a senior copywriter role at a company that does impact investing. And I went through round after round of interviews, really excited about the possibility of working for a brand that’s making a positive social and environmental impact on the world.
Finally, after weeks of back and forth, they asked that I complete “a small homework assignment that should only take a couple of hours.” It involved writing 6 minute-long podcast scripts, then condensing those same 6 scripts into 30-second ads. Finally, they wanted a script for a 30-second Instagram ad. And the kicker was, as soon as they sent the “assignment,” I had 24 hours to get it back to them. If I was a second late, I was eliminated from consideration.
It seemed like a lot of work but I accepted the challenge. I agreed to 13 deliverables in 24 hours, staying up all night to work on them. I learned everything I could about responsible investing. I studied the 5 pillars of their brand voice. I reviewed previous ad campaigns and all their social content, as well as their competitors. I then wrote a half-year’s worth of content in one night.
Unfortunately, I didn’t finish. 1 minute before the deadline I submitted 8 of 13 completed deliverables, then cobbled together outlines for the remaining 5. With my submission I explained the approach I took, and why several were incomplete.
Three days later I learned they would pass. They even went so far as to tell the recruiter that someone with my experience should have easily been able to finish the assignment.
About a month later, while listening to my favorite podcast, I heard an from this company using one of my scripts . They hired someone else for the role but still used my “test.” It was surreal.
Now, this company had their reasons for going in a different direction, and maybe the writer they hired has delivered great work. In fact, reviewing their website now it appears they have. But, obviously, the process doesn’t sit well with me, especially since I put in all that work for nothing.
Now, how do you set up a fair and thorough test process that benefits employers and talent equally? The solution’s pretty simple. Negotiate a fair payment structure up front for these tests. If you go with a fixed-rate structure, pad enough research time into the rate so candidates are encouraged to go the extra yard while still remaining on budget.
A small stipend of say, $100, would have gone a long way toward addressing my frustration. It would reward those who work faster than me, sure, but it also acknowledges that sometimes things take a little longer to get right.
Since I was one of three finalists for that position, this one-time stipend would have cost them $300 total. And it would have ensured that nobody left with bad feelings.
Are sample projects ethical? Sure they are. If you want a job bad enough, you have to show the client you’re willing to jump through a few hoops.
But should we get paid for our blood, sweat and tears? Absolutely.
by Rob Simons